From Medium To Media
Today I went to see ‘Fanny & Alexander’, the (three and a half hour, three act) theatre version of the 1982 Ingmar Bergman film, brought to life at London’s Old Vic. It’s a successful adaptation with a purpose; to realign itself specifically for the theatre. The writer, Simon Beresford, has invented new scenes to suit the proscenium arch. After all, this is a story of a free-living, passionate theatrical dynasty and its fight against a stern moral guardian, so the theatre itself (and the Old Vic is a particularly beautiful one) becomes part of the scenery.
Penelope Wilton is the grand matriarch whose threats to abandon the stage are hollow – she corrects everyone’s line readings even at dinner – while her titular grandchildren grow up in loving chaos until the sudden death of their father propels them into the Bishop’s household. A ramrod-backed anti-semite with a will of iron, he is quick to deprive his new family of their freedom, using the will of God as an excuse for his behaviour.
What’s crucial here is the use of theatrical conventions to open out the story, including two devastating speeches delivered in the third act. But often, stories that jump from one medium to another are more forced. None as much as the appalling recent version of ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ with a miscast Jude Law and embarrassing back-projections of crashing waves (lovemaking, geddit?). Incredibly this is the second bad version of the noir potboiler after a distinctly porcine Val Kilmer had a bash at it in London.
The current fashion is to remake as many old films for the stage as possible, with ‘Strictly Ballroom’ grimly looming on the horizon. The Harry Potter plays are making a fortune and are supposed to be good (although a friend who’s working on them described them as ‘fan fiction with nice lighting’) but most new adaptations are excuses to plonk a major star into a lead role and encourage audiences to invite comparisons with the original.
The superb Headlong stage production of ‘1984’ came as a slap in the face, however, by playing unsettling mental games with its audience. At first the setting appeared to be a book club rereading Orwell’s novel in a municipal library, but the dialogue stuck and repeated, fictional characters appearing as events started melding with an imagined past and a dubious future. Video monitors took up the top half of the stage, so we could become complicit in the betrayal of Winston and Julia. They also ran a live video feed into Room 101, which brought us impressions of Guantanamo Bay and CCTV surveillance. The repeated dialogue patterns created a genuinely nightmarish feeling as character dialogue overlapped, at one moment creating ‘Or, ‘Well’.
However, it stumbled on Broadway with accusations that it had failed to provide ‘trigger warnings’ to its millennial audience, who were shocked to the point of ‘fainting and vomiting’ (New York Times). If a story has been successful in one form it stands a chance of transitioning to another – but is it really necessary?